I went to work early in the morning to get some letters of agreement in the mail to various artists and scholars who will be appearing at Eldridge Street in the spring. I then went to meet our archivist (Nancy) in Brooklyn as she and I were going to meet with a couple in their 90s who had contacted us a few weeks ago. They were retired language teachers with a great sense of history. The wife is wheel chair bound and is a voracious reader. They had never been to Eldridge Street but read about us and wanted to know if we wanted some photos and documents for our archives. We are wary of accepting such things but were so moved by Mrs. A’s two-page, beautifully hand written letter. She had a ketubah (Jewish wedding contract), from the turn of last century, a citizenship certificate and some photographs.
Nancy and I drove to a little town outside of Long Beach and met the couple. Mr. A was tall and spry and had the voice of a vibrant young man. He was happy to see us when he opened the door. He told us his wife was hard of hearing and wheel chair bound so that we should position ourselves in front of her, not to yell but speak clearly and so she could read our lips. We walked upstairs to a room crammed (but orderly and immaculate) with books and encyclopedias in many languages, certificates on the walls and every now and then an accent of some folk art totchka from different cultures.
“Hello there, I am L_____, a woman in a wheelchair called out. Although Mrs. A’s body was trapped in the wheelchair, her demeanor was welcoming and cheerful. Nancy and I proceed to spend a wonderful afternoon with the couple as they told us about themselves and the items they wanted to donate. It turns out Mr. and Mrs. A’s parents were born in the United States in the 1880s, lived on the Lower East Side before moving to the Bronx, then to Brooklyn, as was the norm back then. On the wall outside the study were the documents and photos Mrs. A. wanted to donate. Everything was framed and labeled on the back. A folklorist and archivist’s ideal donation! Many times we get things that are in bad condition with no information or context. Although this family never belonged to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the wedding contract, a beautifully illustrated item that looked like an illuminated manuscript in sea greens and gold and some pink and the certificate of citizenship are typical of the culture in general back then and something we were lacking. The photos of Mrs. A’s parents were in great condition as well. My favorite piece, however, was a wedding invitation in English and Yiddish, something I had never seen before and, as a bonus, had instructions of when to get off the trolley (right on the invitation, also in both languages). All in all, great finds that would give us more depth when planning new exhibitions we’re sharing with our visitors when giving tours.
Nancy and I interviewed the couple and learned that they were both language teachers (Spanish, French and Italian), had met in school and were friends, but never dated. Mr. A was drafted and started to write to Mrs. A and their love blossomed via correspondence (I can believe it , as Mrs. A’s letter to us was so passionate and “from the heart”) and he proposed to her on the phone! Midway through the interview there were cookies and ice cream. Mrs. A started to tire and repeat some of her stories so we decided to pack up and say our goodbyes. Mr. A was full of energy and took us on a brief tour of their beautiful home. When we first met Mr. A., he made it clear that only Mrs. A’s stuff was being donated. They had one son who wasn’t that interested in family history, hence the phone call to us. But Mr. A wasn’t sure he wanted his family things to go to us. However, after an afternoon talking together, he told us he might change his mind and he would be in touch. Nancy and I said our good-byes and started to drive off when Nancy said, “Oh no, we didn’t take a photo!” We looked at each other in horror. “Let’s go back I said.” We turned around, knocked on the door and Mr. A was glad to see us and chuckled when we told him why we had returned. We trooped upstairs and took photos and chatted some more.
Nancy and I reflected on the afternoon’s fieldwork/adventure. We were both happy we had gone. Not only had we secured some interesting artifacts and documents for the Museum, but we got the context and the human-ness of the items, which adds so much to the story of the Synagogue and is what makes our tours and space so heimish.